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Before and After Motherhood

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Not a Mother’s Day goes by when I’m not reminded of a cocktail party I attended with my husband on Mother’s Day weekend, the week before I became a mom.

It was a work event, and I was meeting lots of new people, feeling very pregnant and very self-conscious. On the outside, I resembled a swollen penguin, waddling around the room with one less drink and one more chin than everyone else. On the inside, I was feeling a deep sense of impending loss, knowing that my career as a hip dot-com designer was coming to an end and my cocktail party days would soon be over. This fear-of-what’s-next anxiety manifested in a pretty silly conversation that I had with every new person I met that night. It went something like this:

Husband: James, I want you to meet my wife, Carley. Carley, this is James.

James: Nice to meet you, Carley. (Eyes cast down to giant protruding stomach). When are you due?

Me: (Oblivious). I’m a Creative Consultant.

James: What? No, I said, “When are you DUE?”

Me: Oh, whoops! Any day now.  

This blunder would have been forgettable, except I kept doing it over and over. I don’t know whether it was the ambient noise in the room or in my head, but I never heard the question correctly and consistently answered it wrong. When I look back on it, that cocktail party represents the earliest moments of my letting go. My body, my clothes, my job, my income, my lifestyle … these are all the things that people can point to and say, “You’re doing great.” This is who I thought I was. And I was about to say goodbye to all of them.

So if I wasn’t those things, who was I?

Turns out, I was still me. Though it took a while (and I’m often still a work-in-progress), I began to see motherhood as an opportunity to broaden and deepen my sense of identity. I began to know what all mothers know—that while it’s certainly easier to let the external world validate your sense of worth, that there is a deeper, more powerful sense waiting underneath. Every tantrum quelled, every bowl of Cheerios served, every sippy cup twisted and board book read becomes its own reward with deep, intrinsic value and another way to define yourself. It’s hard to see this sometimes as the monotonous days of motherhood stretch out before you like a marathon. At the end of the day, there is no gold star or inter-office memo to broadcast your job well done, and sometimes the only person that says, “You’re doing great” is the one that you see in the mirror while you’re brushing your teeth. But hang in there: Life is laced with moments where it becomes clear what all the hard work is for, even if no one is watching.  Buy into the culture that focuses on how quickly you can stuff your post-mom body into a pair of skinny jeans, and you miss the lesson entirely.

A mom defines herself not just by what she does, but by what she doesn’t do. She doesn’t lose her temper when a kid-made tidal wave floods the bathroom. She doesn’t let her fear of needles keep her from her child’s side when he gets his first stitches. Every one of us has stories like this—where we were tested by the rollercoaster of parenthood and a strength we didn’t even know we had came bursting through. We are beautiful, smart women who embody grace, intelligence and strength in situations that would send our old selves running. During the long process of raising smart, funny, confident, happy human beings, we use these stories to help us craft our new selves, as scaffolding for our own growth and development.

Eight years later, I think back to that cocktail party and remember the girl I was, on the Mother’s Day before she became “mom.” I miss her a bit: She was cute, fun and her life was orderly. But my messy life is far richer for the (now two) little roommates that share it with me. I’ve received numerous pasta-encrusted, tissue papered Mother’s Day gifts from them, but the best gift they’ve given me is the ability to look deeper than I ever had before and see who it is that I truly am.

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